Of Noise and Nuance

Glasgow's Mogwai delivers Happy Songs for Happy People and still manages to be the loudest band on Earth

"Good music makes me happy," he says. "To take in something of some substance is something you're gonna enjoy, even it makes someone's heart break or it's just a generally sad piece of music."

While the mainstream didn't echo Braithwaite's sentiment, Mogwai quickly became underground heroes, David to Britpop's Goliath. Small clubs in Glasgow led to concert halls throughout Europe; shortly thereafter, Mogwai brought its sound to stateside clubs and music festivals like Austin's South by Southwest, where Stephen Malkmus, indie rock's elder statesman and then-frontman for Pavement, reportedly went so far as to call the quintet the "best band of the 21st century." Years later, acts such as Iceland's critically acclaimed Sigur Rós would follow in Mogwai's footsteps. But stars that glow this bright tend to burn out.

This wave of underground hype broke with the release of Come on Die Young, the follow-up to Young Team. In all-too-typical fashion, Mogwai's sophomore effort was a disappointment, only distantly echoing the debut's genius. Many critics, perhaps reluctantly, began to doubt Mogwai's staying power, its ability to innovate and grow.

Eva Vermandel

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In an attempt to answer these charges, the band (along with Dave Fridmann, producer of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev) spent more than three months in various studios recording its third full-length, Rock Action. Contrary to its title, however, Rock Action didn't rock. It was as if in trying to craft a record that balanced both noise and nuance, the band became so obsessed with the latter that it forgot about the former.

"I think we spent too long recording Rock Action," says Braithwaite of the album's shortcomings. "We had too many resources, and I don't think that that was actually a good thing. It made us less focused. I mean, I like that record a lot, but with this new one ... we really just made sure we had it together before we went in [to the studio]."

Happy Songs for Happy People was recorded in just 32 days and is Mogwai's best work in years. Having succeeded with a manic approach in the past, the band has turned the tables, delivering a record that eloquently blurs the line between skepticism and faith, chaos and harmony.

Where "Hunted by a Freak," the album's opening track, layers delicately plucked guitars and affected vocals into a triumphant battle cry, the next song, "Moses? I Amn't," sounds like a gulag marching anthem, its dour violin moaning over the cicada buzz of machine noises and the omnipresent sub-bass of a whirring synthesizer. This sullen tune is followed by the dulcet "Kids Will Be Skeletons," a halcyon collage of guitar harmonics, twinkling background din, and delicate drumming, all held together by Aitchison's chipper bass line.

Exhibiting a control of studio gadgetry on a par with Radiohead's Kid A, Happy Songsuses various shades of noise -- both synthesized and guitar-driven -- to create an atmosphere, a tone that coats the entire record, tying its disparate moods together. Melted into Mogwai's customary interplay of guitar-bass-drums, these atmospherics fill out its sound, shifting the listener's attention from a specific guitar riff or drum fill to the song as a whole. Tony Doogan, producer of Happy Songs, sees this shift as one of the album's strengths.

"This record is not quite as upfront as Rock Action," says Doogan, speaking from his Glasgow studio. "There's a lot of very subtle stuff, which is hidden away underneath what's actually going on."

"I think we've kind of managed a way to kind of balance out the different elements," echoes Braithwaite. "I like our old records -- they're quite good for how young we were -- but I think they were a bit clumsy."

But for all its grace, Happy Songs still succeeds, at times, in shaking the pillars. The song "Killing All the Flies" finds Mogwai up to its old tricks as it weaves two contrapuntal melodies around a warbled, effects-driven vocal that eventually gets caught up in and destroyed by a wave of chaotic, distorted guitar crunch. On the track "Ratts of the Capital," Mogwai reminds us just how evil a group it can be when the xylophone/bass interplay of the tune's first foreboding minutes is all but decimated by Braithwaite and Cummings' dual guitar attack, which rips through the song like a chain saw cutting through power lines.

Neither the unbridled young team they once were nor the calculating wimps they flirted with becoming, the members of Mogwai have managed a sound that synthesizes the best bits of the band's past with a new vision of the future. In figuring out how to be at peace with the world, they've also figured out the best way to rock it.

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